Some excellent writing has emerged from the Pakistani Diaspora in recent years. Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India is probably the best known. Woven around the theme of Partition it was widely acclaimed through a series of literary prizes. Deepa Mehta made it into a film called Earth. Sidhwa’s latest book, An American Brat, was published in 1993. Sara Suleri is another Pakistani-American woman writer – a fine novelist and a versatile literary critic. Meatless Days (1990), a novel shot with fine observations and sharp wit contends with her The Rhetoric of English in India, a postcolonial critique of British writing on India, as Suleri’s claim to fame. With such an illustrious ancestry it is difficult to appreciate the stock devices and overdone theme of Pasha-Zaidi’s The Colour of Mehndi. A woman struggling with her failing marriage and looking vainly for the lost horizon of her erstwhile ambitions remains a subject of universal concern.
That her life should be uncovered through a series of audio-tapes by her son, who otherwise does not remember his mother, is by now too common a strategy of remembering a forgotten and fragmented life. Again, mental illness, the distorted if not silenced woman’s voice, has been a major subject of concern for feminist critics. But it is overdone now for sometime, and only an extremely talented writer could revive it as a central theme. Much else that occupies Pasha-Zaidi, the woman returning to her maternal home in Pakistan with her brood of children only to realize that she would be a pathetic dependent, the double standards of the Pakistani male, and finally the trauma of marital infidelity, real or imagined, are all concerns that need a fine stylist to lift them out of the mundane.
Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi makes an interesting claim at the start of her book. She says that she wrote her novel as an expression of the pain that patients of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder suffer, and the effects of that pain on family and friends. Herself a patient of this illness, she identifies with the struggle of the protagonist Nazli, through the writing of whose fictional life she seems to have worked out some sort of balance in her own life – “Through Nazli’s life, I found healing. Although the disorder will probably never leave me, I have discovered a delicate peace –for now”. The book, however, does not make clear that Nazli’s mental illness is its main theme. It meanders all over the place from teenage dating, summer jobs, to marriage and the difficulty of bringing up children. Nazli’s death at the end, a solution that she sees as best for her children and husband: “It was better this way. My kinds would be safe … He was a good dad after all. And the kids loved their Dadi. Why should everyone suffer because of me?”, once again trivializes an already overworked stance. The author’s claim that the disturbing ending “characterizes one of the tragic side-effects of the improper use of anti-depressants” does not make a good medical manual out of an uninspiring novel.
Nalini Jain is a Professor in the English Department of Delhi University. Contemporary fiction, particularly diaspora writing, is one of her interests.